PART D: Implications for the Work of Principals



There is considerable evidence to suggest that the Principal's job is getting harder, that we work longer hours, in a climate that is more uncertain than ever before. This is entirely congruent with social, organisational and work trends across the world. But policy, rather than reflecting this complexity, is tending to simplify, narrow down the agendas to something that appears to be manageable and is easily saleable to an imaginary public. Unfortunately, society, young people, neighbourhoods and the task of schooling are not amenable to such reductionism. This policy failure leaves school Principals and staffs largely unsupported in their attempts to find more holistic responses. Political and bureaucratic attempts to allocate and specify costs and responsibilities in minute detail, to minimise risks from litigation and poor publicity, and to present an image of rational management create a only superficial neatness. The current lived reality for Principals is one of patchy communication, inefficient delivery of the necessities to deliver policy promises, isolation and a climate of performativity, where coercion, blame and punishment are an organisational dark side that rarely occurs, but is always possible. It is as if each day presents a series of tests, high risk activities that could go wrong, each requiring immediate response. The prize for dealing with every test is to go onto the next one.

The knowledge and skills that Principals now require are not adequately recognised nor reflected in professional development programs. The integrated and contingent exercise of professional practices across multiple sites on simultaneous tasks is not mirrored in the check list approach to competencies. The personal habits and dispositions necessary to do the job in the current circumstances are neither articulated nor recognised in selection processes. Lacking the ability to 'see' what the Principal's work entails, current industrial arrangements fail to build in and reward all that school leadership and management now demands.

This section builds on the analyses made in the previous three to elaborate further on these points. It is primarily strategic and oriented towards supporting Enterprise Agreement negotiations. The paper and this section are not intended to be a detailed log of claims. It is the work of SASPA to draw out what specific issues are most important to their membership and what resources and support they might need to put on the table during the Enterprise Bargaining process.

The following issues are the keys to understanding the current and emerging role of state school secondary Principals.

Leading and managing a school in a context of paradoxes and tensions.

Many of the educational policy trends that create tensions and paradoxes arise from global changes and state policy. (These have been detailed in previous sections.) Jill Blackmore (40) provides a useful summary :

    • A focus on top down change and hierarchies when the reform research suggests that whole school collaborative effort is most likely to succeed
    • Top down accountability mechanisms that accentuate divisions between Principals and staff and stifle the creativity and local accountability intended by devolved responsibility
    • The shift from educational leader to business manager and entrepreneur when the leadership literature is emphasising moral and ethical concerns
    • The reasons for change have shifted outside schools and redirected the work of Principals to image management not student learning needs
    • Change is instigated by the market rather than by the school or Principal

The reasons for change are not examined. Improved leadership is seen as a solution to the management of change, which is necessarily good because policy has good intentions. This is despite the evidence of the social inequities that can be exacerbated by change.
The collaborative ('female leadership') style is stressed in the literature whereas job descriptions and/or selection procedures privilege financial and business management

In addition, there is a fundamental tension that arises from the combination of political and educational time scales. Because schools are the formal and public social institutions intended to pass on knowledge, skills, understandings and values to the next generation, Principals and teachers must have a long term view and commitment. It is the responsibility of the profession to work with parents to develop a holistic approach to education that will not only meet both the immediate needs of children and young people, but also provide the basis for their ongoing life long learning. There is a balance to be struck between long and short term goals.

A holistic and long term view of a child' s education takes much longer than the four year policy cycle of elected governments. As each successive government seeks to mark itself off from others, there are often significant changes in emphases in policy direction and focus. The Principals task is to manage them, to meet the requirements of the government of the day. At the same time, the longer term, broader, comprehensive conception of learning and schooling children for life, must also be maintained - because this is the professional responsibility of all who work in schools. When a government policy agenda narrows or becomes skewed in particular directions ( see Sections B and C) then Principals must manage a complexity of demands and pressures. The current political modus operandi for the sale of the new policy agenda demonises the policy projects it wishes to replace by 'naming and shaming' the systems and schools that delivered them. Balancing the long and short term occurs at the same time as the (politically) manufactured fears of parents, and anger and low morale of staff.

2. Increase in managerial work.

A number of policy changes have combined to produce a significant increase in work for Principals. They can be summarised as:


Devolved responsibilities.
Institutional reform, the decentralisation of decision making about people, money, and buildings, has taken place in the context of significant reduction in the number of Central Office staff who were previously required to do the same tasks. Some of these tasks are still done in the traditional way, but by less people, because new technologies have not been developed, and because alternative procedures have not been introduced. (The system of paper files is perhaps the most obvious example.) In South Australia, job shedding has been going on for many years and while schools were protected for some time from budgetary cuts, they did pick up the additional work. In recent years, schools have been subject to staff reductions, both in teaching and in school support positions. Not only did initial savings from decentralisation not pass on to schools, but they then also continued to take on more responsibilities at the same time as there were actual reductions in staffing. Given the long hours now worked by school Principals and staff involved in school decision making committees, it is most unlikely that any further shift in work from the Centre to the school can be accomplished without the transfer of the resources necessary to do the tasks successfully. Non government schools typically have a high status position requiring business qualifications to deal with many financial and management tasks: Joint Principal Associations are on record (41) arguing that any devolution trials must include such a position in order to avoid the Principal becoming a glorified accountant.

(b) Risk Prevention
At the same time, the risk environment requires increased documentation and administrative time. Contributing to a significant increase in Principal work load are:

  • Occupational and worker compensation legislation - a system of insurance for both employees and employers. It requires considerable procedural conformity across sites and standardised operational procedures and record keeping. These can be intensely time consuming.
  • The need to be responsive to parents and community concerns and complaints, and to follow due process so as to avoid interference from legal or quasi legal bodies. This often involves considerable time and file management.
  • Increasing parent complaints is an inevitable corollary of the mix of individualised consumer oriented education policy, a tabloid media, and the decline in community based services for families under high stress. Such complaints often hinge around the threat and sometimes the presence of journalists, and inevitably involve many hours of Principal time.
  • Risk management policies are preventive measures required to hedge against potential litigation and/or cost. Significant confidentiality, record keeping and communication are now required of Principals - see for example the critical incident and bomb threat procedures that become more elaborate each year.

(c) Accountability measures.
Current reform combines an educational policy focus on student output data, with the public sector reform agendas of quality assurance, and changes in financial management practice. In the school this results in a significant change in data collection. It is true that schools did keep at least some of the data that is now required. But now they all have to adjust to a common format and framework, in addition to collecting new information in the new forms. The success of this policy depends on the introduction of standardised software which ensures common data categories across schools so that uniform systems information can be presented to multiple audiences. The process of developing appropriate platforms and their introduction into schools has been troubled. Obviously additional work is always required as one management regime changes to another, as people learn what is required, and as there is double handing of data for safety. Principals believe that the costs of such work in schools have either been significantly underestimated - or under-funded, because there isn't the money to do the job properly. (Calculations of such under-funding have recently been documented in a Coopers and Lybrand study (42) of similar reforms across Europe.) The successful implementation of accountability requirements relies heavily on additional work picked up at the school level, based on the goodwill and commitment the Principal is able to generate within the school for the task. When such reform is couched in a rhetoric of being good for students, and in reality its prime purpose is to benefit the system and therefore all schools, and if the reform has been politically sold to the public with considerable gloss and fanfare when the reality is much more hesitant, this is not an easy task.

3. Work in a re- adjusted hierarchy.

Edward Deming, the father of TQM, suggested that at least 80 percent of the problems in any organisation are not to do with individual people but with systemic structures and deep operating principles and practices. Some of the premises of current public sector management and organisation are based on the fundamental belief in the separation of policy from delivery - the prevention of service providers corrupting policy goals with self serving interests - and performativity - the belief that specifying performance goals and then contracting individual people or units to deliver them maximises efficiency, effectiveness and accountability. Lines of reporting, accountability, and scrutiny are made clearer. (These practices are criticised (43) not only by Deming, but also many others: that individualised performance management and reward works against team work is obvious.) All recent restructures and realignments of the South Australian education organisation have sought to make more clear the allocation of duties and responsibilities. What is significant is that they alter the relationship that Principals have both with staff and with Central Office. The organisational charts show increased distance between each organisational level, and supervisory responsibilities articulated in, for example, performance management policy and work reports, place the onus for delivery of particular outcomes at particular organisational points. However, many of these responsibilities are not so neatly delineated and are dependent on interconnecting and organic systems.

An example serves to illustrate. The Principal's responsibility to ensure that teaching within the school is of a high quality is highly dependent on the teachers that are allocated to the school - a combined central office and local responsibility. Teachers who do not easily adjust their methods to a new environment are likely to become the subject of peer and Principal concern and student and parent complaints. Dissatisfaction that emerges in parent surveys associated with the annual report, for example, will reflect poorly on the Principal who may be perceived to be an inadequate manager because her/his staff are not 'performing'. This in turn may impact on the Principal's work report and their subsequent career path. While knowledgeable line managers may use personal knowledge to modify or avert such an outcome, the actual allocation of blame/responsibility is the potential written into performance based individualised job descriptions. In this example, and in many other cases, the responsibility that is allocated to an individual level and position, is in reality a systemic one.

The effects of performance based hierarchies can be described as producing:

(a) Disincentives for learning.
Simplistically described organisational relationships that mistakenly allocate culpability create low trust between levels of the hierarchy. They also produce defensive behaviour as people are reluctant to expose skill areas that need improvement or problems that are difficult to manage to supervisors who are required to comment on their performance. Such personalised accountability measures work against a collaborative learning culture and professional growth, the rhetoric espoused in performance based policies.

(b) Distance between Principal and staff.
A combination of factors works towards transforming the relationship between Principals and their staffs. Increased administrative tasks, the necessity of being out of the school for substantial periods of time, site responsibility for the implementation of new policies which staff may not willingly accept work together with individualised performance management to make the Principal more remote from the everyday world of the classroom. This is a significant impediment to school based reform which relies on trusting and collaborative professional relationships.

(c) Managerialisation of the Principalship.
Because it is now harder for Principals to engage in detailed curriculum work and discussions within the school, some Principals in other states have felt their work to have more in common with general public sector management than with the professional work of teachers. In South Australia, this is not the case. Despite the trend to increasing remoteness from the immediate world of teaching, Principals see their work as inextricable from education: they practice a meta pedagogy that underpins all leadership and management tasks. This position is maintained against the flow of organisational arrangements.

(d) Declining relationships between schools and Central Office.
Performativity and the separation of roles and decision making within the organisation also has an impact on the way that schools and their Principals interact with Central Office. Central Office staff have been more strictly divided into performance based units. School criticism of the delivery of service provided by such units may well directly appear in quality assurance procedures, unit supervisor's work reports, complaints to superiors. One response by unit staff to such school concerns then is defensiveness, another is to move to meet the problem - but as in the example of Principals and staff, some of the solution may well be out of their control or influence. Within a low trust environment such compartmentalisation and quasi - contractualised, performative relationships quickly lead to blame. There are many examples of strong Central and local personal commitments and skills overcoming such situations. The issue, however, is that it is the way the system is geared to work.

(e) Extra time commitments devoted to overcoming organisational blocks.
Principals and Central Office staff alike have had to adjust their patterns of work in order to put in the time required to establish the personal trust that is now structured out of the system. Corporate values and a common organisational culture rely on greater levels of autonomy and mutuality, performativity for teams not individuals and only for those things where there is not a diffuse and holistic responsibility. Such organisational characteristics cannot easily be established in segmented and balkanised organisations.

4. Work in the context of scarcity.

Recent moves by the South Australian government to legislate for a goods and services fee to be levied on parents and the findings of the Senate Committee on Education, Employment and Training (published in Not a Level Playground)(44), confirm that government funding alone is not sufficient to run a school. Additional funds must be found from non government sources. It is now commonplace for Principals and school administrative staff to spend considerable amounts of time chasing resources.

This takes different forms in different schools:
In schools that serve the poorest communities, Commonwealth funds account for, on average, 25 percent of their budgets (45). Since such funds are allocated, per capita, on the basis of School Card, which is also the substitute for the parent Goods and Services charge, there is considerable pressure on targeted schools to ensure that everyone eligible for School Card is registered and approved. These schools often allocate considerable administrative time to contacting families so that the Principal can sight the relevant welfare documentation purely in order to get sufficient funds to run the programs budgeted for in the previous year.
Other schools may require substantive renovation or the provision of facilities that are standard for schools built at a different time. Principals of such schools can be found persuading the bureaucracy to make the particular facilities a spending priority, finding potential ways to share costs through establishing partnerships with community or local government organisations, devoting time and energy to the local and political lobbying that now seems to be required if scarce public funds are to allocated. (Indeed all school Principals now spend considerable time on facilities matters; where it is question of maintenance and the school has the required budget this is also time consuming, but there is an immediate and tangible result.)
Country schools spend considerable time juggling school funds, staffing, distance education costs and enrolments. Many rural communities have no capacity for fundraising and no other choice for education than the nearest high or area school. Current allocations insufficiently recognise the difficulties of providing curriculum choice, extra curricular options, professional development and information technology access in the country and the subsequent additional demands this makes of country Principals to find the necessary funds.

There are also policy created resource problems that are common to all schools and Principals. The introduction of the new technologies into schools has created new pressures to supplement the government allocation. Principals and administrative staff now spend time searching for the 'best deal' and for cost effective maintenance solutions in addition to the requirement to provide intranets and sufficient hardware to meet the expectations of parents and deliver the government policy.

All school Principals are now much more heavily involved in networking, and in fundraising and entrepreneurial activity. This takes many forms - ranging from writing grant applications, attending a large range of neighbourhood meetings and organisations, negotiating partnerships with community organisations, organising school fetes and other fund raising activities, running school based small businesses to seeking sponsorship from the private sector. It is worth noting that independent schools often have specific positions devoted to fundraising and public relations, closely connected activities, since they see that this is not only a specialised role requiring specific expertise, but is also one that Principals should not be doing - their particular expertise being professional and pedagogic.

The policy surrounding such resource acquisition activity is now woefully inadequate and the substantive ethical issues that underpin the activities of cash strapped schools are left to individual Principals and their School Councils or in some cases, clusters of schools, to determine. Further devolution and/or failure of government funding to keep pace with politically created community expectations could well see Principals having to spend even more time on resources related matters. This is unacceptable because it works directly against the imperatives for educational reform.

5. A complexity of reform tasks.

Schools are now enmeshed in far reaching, major systemically initiated and controlled curriculum, structural and cultural changes. The magnitude of the changes, or 'policy complex' as it is sometimes known, are seen by policy makers at a distance, and through one lens by the managers of each separate change project who cannot understand why schools cannot (most often articulated by their Principals), muster suitable enthusiasm. Changes include:

(a) Curriculum.
A shift to outcomes based assessment.

The pedagogical underpinning of Key Competencies and the Statements and Profiles is that students should work in various ways towards demonstrable learning outcomes. That this is methodologically contested by advocates of constructionism, by those working towards inclusive equitable curriculum, and by a range of learning theorists (46 ) is left to schools to sort out. That it requires considerable additional data collection by classroom teachers and relies on some significant shifts in syllabus becomes a matter for negotiation and disputation. The rate of implementation, regardless of the need for major revisions of what was only a first attempt at a curriculum developed away from students, becomes the stuff of school and system wide discussion and manoeuvring. At both the school and system level, the role of Principals is considerable. It is they who must provide the link between the system and the staff and who must take responsibility for what occurs in their schools.
The rapid diversification of the postcompulsory curriculum.
At the same time as maintaining the traditional curriculum pathways, some of which are still in need of major revision to meet the needs of many students, schools are now involved in designing vocational courses to meet externally developed industrial competencies. This raises not only the rather obvious issues of time, but more difficult questions related to course content and delivery (what teachers might think of as pedagogy and epistemology) where there exist considerable historically based philosophical differences between the training and school sectors. To these are added the necessity for liaison with training providers, industry and employers, the cost of industry approved equipment and materials and the credentialling of staff. While there is considerable good will among school staff for vocational education, they are rather less tolerant of the politically inspired exhortations to get many such courses in place as quickly as possible. Managing the delicate balance of staff workload and morale, being involved in the educational debates, and negotiating with cluster colleagues, Central Office staff, community and industry can be a hefty impost on Principals and other members of the school administrative team. The prospect of now adding to this pot pourri the development of school based options for those being denied income support, and for whom only a paltry per capita allowance is proferred, is not welcomed.
The shift to fully networked schools
While politicians may like to have their photo opportunities with children and computer screens, the reality of going digital is far less simple. The development of school curriculum and administrative intranets, and the curriculum and teaching method work that must be done in order to move from 'chalk and talk' to learning with, in and through information and communication technologies, make significant new demands on Principals and teachers. In addition to learning how to use the technologies for themselves ( a time consuming process that involves immersion in the medium), teachers must then begin the slow, collaborative, intellectual work of changing their teaching methods and curricula. Principals must not only do this, but also become absolutely familiar with administrative software, in order to lead and make the school wide decisions about budgets, room modifications, equipment purchasing arrangements and fundraising. While there is little difficulty in persuading parents that computers are a priority, staff often become extremely frustrated by the amount of school time and money that is devoted to the new demands, as they displace, in the short term, the other ongoing and necessary expenditure of effort and funds. Principals have been on a rapid learning curve with digital technologies and recent moves in Victoria to make computer literacy a condition for appointment to the Principalship (47) indicate that this will continue to be an area of immense pressure.
A Move to more student centred approaches
Despite actual reductions in school staffing that make it more difficult to address teacher - student ratios and new kinds of para- professional staff work organisation, many secondary schools have moved to substantially alter the ways in which they group, move and teach students. These include timetables that allow for longer lessons, part time attendance and team work to support thematic and integrated curricula: re- arrangement of school buildings to create sub schools and small spaces for private study and tutorials: staffing approaches that support the development of strong teacher -student relationships and reduce the number of contacts for both students and staff: negotiated curricula approaches that allow for collaborative work that requires real life learning, research skills and higher order thinking. Such changes do not occur without the leadership of the Principal, particularly if, as is the case here, such efforts are only marginally supported in aspects of system policy.

(b) An increased localism.
While South Australia does not yet have full scale devolution, there are substantial numbers of tasks devolved to the local level (this is discussed in Section C). However, what is equally important and often very time consuming are:

    • Maintaining relationships and networks in the local area
      What often appears to be school based reforms, such as vocational education, dealing with families and young people in crisis, developing a curriculum that builds on students' strengths, interests and knowledges, are significantly enhanced if the school has strong ties with its communities. Tapping into local job networks, finding mentors for young people, locating a person to help out with a particular problem, getting access to specific local sites and resources must largely be left to those who are not bound by daily schedules of student contact. In most cases, it is therefore the administrative team who do this liaison with local government, local churches and service clubs, and with the key community leaders. In addition, such community liaison also makes sure that school is visible in the community and that there is an information flow between the school and its neighbourhood - something that is increasingly necessary in a marketised environment.
    • Dealing with information, local concerns and complaints.
      Much is gained and lost in the way the school handles its information and communication. This goes far beyond the production of newsletters, procedures for handling primary school transition, pictures in the local Messenger press and the ritual of student report evenings - although these are important. The local grapevine thrives on soap opera style stories of, amongst other things, the goings on at the local school. A conflict among students, a new learning programme that is insufficiently negotiated or explained or is just contentious in its own right, the existence of particular subgroups with very particular views and values - these are not rarities. They are the everyday of the Principals work and can take considerable time to manage. Explaining contemporary approaches to teaching literacy and numeracy, informing about and defending the Departmental approach to corporal punishment or to exclusion and suspension are regular occurrences. While none of these in themselves are difficult, together they shape the Principal's time in significant ways. Long term issues always get put aside for these immediate questions. They are increasing in intensity and frequency (see Section B) and are only known to line managers when they are not resolved. They are then largely invisible, albeit acknowledged, aspects of the Principals' work.

(c) An embattled public education system.
The impact of several years of public criticisms of the public education system, of forced transfers due to declining enrolments, of incentives to leave the profession and of the political belittling of teachers cannot be over emphasised. The morale question is one that is often described in terms of an aging profession, but this explanation glosses over these crucial factors. It is not that middle aged teachers and Principals do not have energy anymore, or have somehow become less committed to their chosen vocation. Rather it is that they question why they should continue to work extraordinarily long hours, in a consuming job, for a greedy organisation that does not reward or even thank those who do so.

What is also often ignored is that many schools are not suffering from general malaise. Principals and administrative teams can, and do, support and shape school cultures that are positive, enthusiastic, hard working, and highly productive. They do this by paying careful attention to staff learning and working conditions, by dealing sympathetically and fairly with difficulties and conflicts and by creating a sense of common endeavour and purpose. This is time consuming and vital. The difficulty is that such schools do not feel part of a common and holistic government supported system when schooling and teachers are under constant scrutiny and potential ideological attack.

A government system would do more than rely on local and individual Principal efforts to improve morale and the status of teaching and public schools. Well funded system wide marketing, comprehensive public information about contemporary educational approaches and methods of introducing policy initiatives that do not rely for their rationale on denigration of what exists, would be a start. Recognition of issues such as teacher - student ratio and professionally supported learning would go further.

An hierarchical approach to reform.

The current policy approach is one of top down change. Both the Federal and state governments develop policies at a distance from schools, albeit with some consultation, some times, with peak bodies (including those representing Principals). The task of schools is therefore one of implementation. Difficulties in meeting prescribed timelines or in following policy prescriptions are regarded as an implementation problem, rather than to do with the nature of the policy, or its interaction with other policy demands, or the specific ongoing needs and plans of specific schools. Training that accompanies policy is often geared to uncritical acceptance of the new regime. Principals' collective activity often then centres on negotiating a staged implementation, or in a worst case scenario, in banning the particular program. (The implementation of the nationally agreed and developed benchmarks is a current case in point.)

The state approach is also sometimes based on the notion of 'adopt and adapt', using strategies such as pilot programs, trials, focus schools, and contracted-out school based action research. This is both a recognition that schools contain practical pedagogical knowledge that has considerable modifying effect on expert conceptions of possible teaching and learning improvements, and that policies are changed to fit particular circumstances. While this is still top down, it recognises and values policy refraction, the local interpretations of policies designed at a distance from schools.
Such an approach has two important underpinnings:

    • An understanding that the school is not an empty vessel to be filled up with the latest reform agenda
    • A reliance on the modifications that occur at the local level to generate the desired reform

This has important ramifications for understanding the role of the Principal because such a view of policy implementation, the adoption and adaptation at the local level, relies on the Principal being an educational reform leader and manager. This is well recognised in the literature on effective reform (38) which stresses the crucial importance of Principals: creating the leadership depth and structures that enable professional and community participation, articulating strategies that make long term reform possible and negotiating opportunities and dealing with potential difficulties along the reform road.

What is not currently built into the structures and practices of school systems in general, including South Australia's, is the capacity to build on bottom up school initiated reform or the transformation of policy initiatives into much richer and more diverse locally relevant reforms. Such policy diffraction and innovation are precisely what is encouraged in the new learning and knowledge based organisations of the private sector (such as the software industry). It is this capacity, based in looser and high trust relationships, that makes significant improvements and conceptual leaps. This however is not the pattern of schooling generally, around which there is both community and government conservatism, tending much more to control and regulate. This is a blinkered view of change and one that hinders school systems coming to terms with the massive social shifts, paradoxes and tensions (see Section B).

Even if innovation is not the aim, but gradual change that sticks, top down policy approaches are ill advised. The development of future policy and reform directions- if they are to be well grounded- depends on what happens in schools - what works and what doesn’t, what new directions are found. In other words, future policy relies on policy refraction, tailoring and modifying at the local level and feeding back the information into the system. Where this is not allowed, when policy is expected to be uncritically implemented -despite policy overload, unrealistic timelines, untested or exclusive pedagogies - or where policy fails to meet current school practices, plans and needs - then the Principal may be placed in a situation where one of two unpalatable choices are forced:
To follow the policy prescription despite knowing that it needs modification in order to be successful. A less than satisfactory result is produced for the system, but also more importantly, for students and staff
To modify the policy prescription so that benefits to students and staff are maximised. Afterwards, there may be an attempt to describe the (forbidden) modification in the original terms of the policy to the system, or a pretence that the modification did not occur.
Either of these two choices is unpalatable. However, professional practice and ethics require Principals to act in the best interests of their students and we might hazard a guess that the situation of partial or altered policy implementation is more commonly what occurs. Recognition of the necessity of policy refraction and recognition of the depth of the Principal's reform role are both required.

Lack of recognition of difference.

Current policy has a contradictory approach to the variety that already exists and might be further produced in the system. While federal schools policy encourages market choice between schools it also acts to ensure that they conform to curriculum frameworks, and state policy encourages flexible school based budgeting within tight accountability frameworks [see Section C]. However, the questions about difference are greater than just being about regulation and flexibility. Failure to recognise the different demands of different schools means that there are sometimes unrealistic and uniform expectations of outcome, style, and school priorities placed on Principals. In a society where :

    • there is an increasing gap between rich and poor(48),
    • matters of culture and race have become highly inflammatory and divisive,
    • some schools more than others will be required to take on early school leavers forced back into school by government fiat,
    • some schools may well lose up to a quarter of their budgets if Commonwealth poverty funds are redirected,
    • declining school enrolments force responses that range from image management to cooperative activity,
    • parent flight to more prestigious schools is a constant threat,
    • there are clearly more differences amongst schools than those named as market choice.

Failure to recognise such differences and build responses into the practices of the system can be seen in two examples: Principal classification systems and Principal career paths.

(a) Classification
The production of a standard job and person specification for Principals that can be marginally modified to suit each school in local selection processes, fails to recognise the very real differences between schools. A Principal classification system that relies on describing complexity through the indicators of size and budget is a simplistic solution to dealing with the different demands placed on school Principals. This is an ongoing issue and requires continued attention. It is clear that simplistic indicators are inadequate. It has not and will not be easy to find some equity between schools that have rapidly increasing welfare and discipline burdens combined with rapidly declining resources, those that are under pressure to provide a highly diverse curriculum to a small rural population and those that attempt to meet the expectation of demanding middle class parents. However, a combination of factors that represent complexity is likely to be more equitable than the personnel equivalent of a narrow standardised test.

(b) Career paths
At present there is no clear career pathway leading to the Principal's position. A series of job descriptions is the best we can do to summarise the knowledge, skills and understandings (5) that might form the basis of such a pathway. Such a pathway would begin from the base of teacher knowledge and add to it systematic learning about for example, the history and sociology of school administration, the cultural practices of Principals, the technologies of leadership and management, and theories of school reform. This learning may require formal study. Such systematic learning would have a practical component that would have at its heart the development of the habits and dispositions (6) necessary to do the Principal's job. Once appointed as a Principal a menu of professional learning opportunities would be available for Principals so that, once past their initial period of generally learning about the job, they could go on to develop to a sophisticated level the specific skills required for the specific school in which they were located. Continued learning to facilitate transfer to other specific sites, to maintain current professional knowledge, and to acquire more systems based knowledge and experience would logically follow. Options for ongoing learning might include attendance at national and international conferences, university courses, paid leave for observation, exchanges and placements in industry. This would provide support for the differences among schools as well as ensuring that each had a Principal who was actively engaged in professional practice. The notion of a staged career pathway could be enshrined in salary packaging arrangements and also provide a focus for the Leadership Centre beyond the necessary immediate technical management associated with systemic priorities.

The broader philosophical questions surrounding difference now have little arena for either discussion or action. Socioeconomic disadvantage has been reduced to the collection of test data on literacy and early intervention and remediation programmes, gender to legislative adherence and some small projects, multiculturalism is now a largely unfunded policy consumed by the related but not equivalent matters surrounding LOTE. It is the lack of a systemic approach to educational and curricular justice that lies behind the current impasses around difference that underpin both the classification and career path exemplars. Equity has largely been reduced to a technical matter of collecting output data around the achievement of under theorised groups, rather than an active engagement in current theories and debates, a culture of systemic learning about educational justice and direct support for action ( See Section B). This not only affects Principals in their own careers, but also hinders their work in schools.

Work in a high pressure context.

The pace and nature of educational reform in South Australia has specific characteristics. We have been slower than other states in moving to institutional change through devolution. We have been more thorough in our implementation of the national curriculum statements and profiles. We have dealt with the vocational training and postcompulsory agendas more slowly than some other states. Our apparent retention rates are plummeting while our part time attendance is the highest in the country, indicating that school reform around part time school - paid work options might be proceeding more quickly than in other states. Teachers and Principals remain part of the same professional union unlike our counterparts in some other states.

However, there are some things that are common across the country and, indeed, internationally. Principals are now much more unsupported and much more responsible for their schools than ever before. The combined effects of:

    • global trends that are unrecognised or simplified by policy but are manifest in the students, community and school that demand attention and action from Principals (see Section B)
    • the decline in advisory structures and the simultaneous shift to quality assurance and performance based line management relationships that isolate Principals, scrutinise them closely and make them totally responsible for their schools ( see Section C)
    • market pressures to maintain school image, offer a curriculum and school culture that is attractive to parents, manage increased and overt competition from newly funded and expanding private schools and support the values and goals of the public education system (see Section C)
    • simplistic and standardised approaches - to policy and its implementation, to accountability and student outcomes and to schools - that work counter to the prevailing scholarship on reform and leadership popularised in professional development activities (this section and Section C)
    • implementation of a complex range of new curricula at the same time as moving rapidly to become fully digitised and web- wise ( Section B and this section)
    • make the job of the Principal increasingly complex. It is little wonder that the literature is beginning to stress deep coping skills ( Miles and Louis), emotional management (Blackmore and Sachs), and balancing work and life (Fullan and Hargreaves)(49).

This is a systemic issue. It is currently dealt with on a case by case basis if a Principal succumbs to the demands of the job. A minimal response is some ongoing monitoring of the pressures involved and their toll on the emotional and physical health of the individual Principals charged with the responsibility of running public schools. This is hardly a luxury.

Commissioned Paper.
South Australian Secondary Principals Association.
March 1998.

[ About this paper ] [ Executive Summary ] [ The Role of the Principal ]
[ Changes in Society ] [ Changes in Australian Government Policies ]
[Implications for the Work of Principals ] [ The Paradox of Policy and Pay ]
[ Footnotes ]